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Saturn's Rings
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A Full Sweep of Saturn's Rings
This is a detailed image of Saturn's ring system. The rings of Saturn are the most extensive planetary ring system of any planet in the Solar System. Saturns's rings consist of countless small particles, ranging in size from micrometres to metres, that form clumps that in turn orbit about Saturn. The ring particles are made almost entirely of water ice, with some contamination from dust and other chemicals.

While the largest gaps in the rings, such as the Cassini Division and Encke Gap, can be seen from Earth, both Voyager spacecraft discovered that the rings have an intricate structure of thousands of thin gaps and ringlets. This structure is thought to arise, in several different ways, from the gravitational pull of Saturn's many moons. Some gaps are cleared out by the passage of tiny moonlets such as Pan, many more of which may yet be discovered, and some ringlets seem to be maintained by the gravitational effects of small shepherd satellites (similar to Prometheus and Pandora's maintenance of the F ring).[citation needed] Other gaps arise from resonances between the orbital period of particles in the gap and that of a more massive moon further out; Mimas maintains the Cassini division in this manner.[citation needed] Still more structure in the rings consists of spiral waves raised by the inner moons' periodic gravitational perturbations at less disruptive resonances.

Data from the Cassini space probe indicate that the rings of Saturn possess their own atmosphere, independent of that of the planet itself. The atmosphere is composed of molecular oxygen gas (O2) produced when ultraviolet light from the Sun interacts with water ice in the rings. Chemical reactions between water molecule fragments and further ultraviolet stimulation create and eject, among other things O2. According to models of this atmosphere, H2 is also present. The O2 and H2 atmospheres are so sparse that if the entire atmosphere were somehow condensed onto the rings, it would be on the order of one atom thick. The rings also have a similarly sparse OH (hydroxide) atmosphere. Like the O2, this atmosphere is produced by the disintegration of water molecules, though in this case the disintegration is done by energetic ions that bombard water molecules ejected by Saturn's moon Enceladus. This atmosphere, despite being extremely sparse, was detected from Earth by the Hubble Space Telescope.

In 1610, the year Galileo Galilei first turned a telescope to the sky, he became the very first person to observe Saturn's rings, though he could not see them well enough to discern their true nature. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens was the first person to describe them as a disk surrounding Saturn. Although many people think of Saturn's rings as being made up of a series of tiny ringlets (a concept that goes back to Laplace), true gaps are few in number. It is more correct to think of the rings as an annular disk with concentric local maxima and minima in density and brightness. On the scale of the clumps within the rings there is a lot of empty space.

There are several gaps within the rings: two opened by known moons embedded within them, and many others at locations of known destabilizing orbital resonances with Saturn's moons. Other gaps remain unexplained. Stabilizing resonances, on the other hand, are responsible for the longevity of several rings, such as the Titan Ringlet and the G Ring.

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